Summary: Though the suffering that the Christian endures in life is nothing by way of comparison to the glory that awaits him (8.18), God does not leave him without help. The Spirit helps him in his weakness. Even if the primary weakness Paul has in mind is that o
O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water. So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory. Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you. So I will bless you as long as I live; in your name I will lift up my hands. (Psalm 63.1-4)
Paul, like the authors of the Synoptic Gospels, understands that the reception of the gospel has an immediate effect upon the life of the believer but that there remains something more that is still future. There is, so to speak, an ‘already, but not yet’ dimension to the New Testament’s teaching about the good news. While the Christian is redeemed, justified, and reconciled to God, he has not yet been glorified; he still suffers from temptation and the effects of sin in the world. All creation has suffered the effects of Adam’s sin. It groans to be released from this burden, and the believer who has received the firstfruits of the Spirit also groans inwardly, eagerly anticipating the redemption of the body. This longing is often expressed by Paul; for example: For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we sigh, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee (2 Corinthians 5.2-5; cp. Philippians 1.21-23; 2 Timothy 4.18). Though redemption’s work has begun, it is not complete. The Christian’s hope for heaven is deeply rooted in his regenerate heart and he longs for Christ’s appearing so that his salvation may be completed: Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we will be like him, because we shall see him as he is (1 John 3.2; 2 Timothy 4.8; Hebrews 9.28; 2 Peter 3.13; Revelation 22.20).
THE SPIRIT’S INTERCESSION IN THE BELIEVER’S HEART (8.26-27)
Though the suffering that the Christian endures in life is nothing by way of comparison to the glory that awaits him (8.18), God does not leave him without help. The Spirit helps him in his weakness. Even if the primary weakness Paul has in mind is that of not knowing God’s will (8.27), there is, nevertheless, no need to restrict the Spirit’s assistance of the believer only to the discernment of God’s will. Paul recognizes that the believer cannot, in this life, overcome his frequent inability rightly to perceive God’s will in a given circumstance. Paul himself, for example, had prayed three times for the thorn in the flesh (2 Corinthians 12.7) to be removed, yet as it turned out the thorn served God’s purpose for Paul and was to remain so he might know even more dramatically that God’s grace was sufficient and that God’s power was perfected in weakness. In addition, during his second missionary journey Paul attempted to go to Bithynia but the Spirit did not permit him to do so (Acts 16.7).
There are two intercessors listed in Romans 8. In 8.34 Paul assures the Roman believers that Christ in his session (Jesus seated at the right hand of God; cp. Hebrews 7.25; 1 John 2.1) is constantly interceding for Christians (for a more expansive understanding of prayer and the session of Christ review my sermon notes from September 11, 2005). But the intercessor of today’s text (8.26-27) is the Holy Spirit. He dwells in the hearts of believers (8.26-27; cp. John 14.16-17) and he prays that the merits of Christ’s redemptive work may be fully applied to those who trust in him. Though the believer desires to please God and walk in obedience to his will he does not always know how to prayer in accordance with God’s will. Jesus knew precisely what his Father’s will was (John 17.1-15), yet he prayed: “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nonetheless, not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 26.39). It is the Spirit who always prays in such a way on behalf of believers. “In writing that the Spirit intercedes kata theon [according to God], Paul intends to say that the Spirit intercedes for believers according to the will of God. The weakness of believers in prayer, therefore, is that they do not have an adequate grasp of what God’s will is when they pray. Because of our finiteness and fallibility we cannot perceive fully what God would desire” (Thomas Schreiner, Romans, p. 443).